spotlight

Spotlight: compelling tale, well told

Film

I’m really not sure what you’re supposed to refer to Tom McCarthy as: Writer? Director? Actor? Hollywood’s messiah? A very naughty boy?

Ok, I may have gone off on a tangent slightly. What I’m trying to say is that this guy is prolific and prodigiously talented. This is a bloke that’s acted in The Wire, written an unaired pilot for Game of Thrones, wrote Up for Pixar, and has now written and directed Spotlight. (Plus a load of other stuff. Diverse doesn’t really cover it.)

For Spotlight he’s assembled a mighty ensemble of actors who play a special investigative ‘spotlight’ newsroom team at the Boston Globe that start to look into cases of priests sexually abusing children and uncover systemic abuse throughout the church on a global scale. And it’s a true story. Oscars, are you shined, dusted down and at the ready?

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That may sound cynical but, unless he messes it up, it’s a bit of a slam dunk. Worthy tale, excellent cast, bang on awards season etc. That said, he’s still got to tell a story which, let’s face it, involves journalists sifting through archives of paper and attempting to interview hostile locals who don’t want to talk. But he makes it work.

The story zips along with ease and the cast all seem to be on their A-game bouncing off each other. Those that take most plaudits are the three key players in the spotlight team: boss (Michael Keaton) and his two lieutenants (Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo), with honourable mentions going to lawyer with a conscious (Stanley Tucci) and editor with steely conviction (Liev Schrieber); for both quietly stealing their respective scenes.

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery play Boston Globe journalists in the film, Spotlight.

And McCarthy, to his credit, just lets his cast get on with it and tell the story. He’s not showy or clever but just lets the tale play out and keeps the pace up, giving the audience credit saying, ‘You’re intelligent moviegoers, you’ll keep up.’

Initially I didn’t get into the groove but after 20 minutes I was hooked and right there with the spotlight team, willing them to tie all their evidence together and bring the whole corrupt system down (It’s not hard to think all priests and dodgy as hell, although I’m sure many aren’t). And the whole experience was made all the more compelling by the fact it’s not only a true tale, but a recent one.

So in case I wasn’t clear, don’t go into this thinking it’ll be full of action and grandstanding. It’s all character and subtlety, this one. You’ll get maybe one scene with a raised voice and one where a guy runs for a photocopier. Other than that, you’ll need your thinking caps on and to be paying attention. But that’s no bad thing, no bad thing indeed.

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The Revenant: brutal and simple

Film

Fur trappers. Who’d want to be one eh? Having just seen The Revenant I’d say the average life expectancy of those guys couldn’t have been past about 30. And if you encounter tribes of Indians on a regular basis then more like 20.

The film’s shoot has already become the stuff of modern Hollywood legend. Forget Christian Bale losing weight for roles, he wasn’t out in the elements. DiCaprio, as the stories go, properly suffered. And the Academy loves an actor that gets put through the wringer for a role. So much so he seems a dead cert to take the Best Lead Actor Oscar (for which he’s long overdue).

But, ramblings aside, let’s talk about the actual film, inasmuch as we can do avoiding spoilers. Not that there’s much to spoil as it’s a pretty simple tale. We start with Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) hunting in the wilderness somewhere then cut back to camp where the rest of the trappers get viciously set upon by Native American Indians. It’s an astonishing set piece and worth your price of entry alone; as the camera bobs and weaves and ducks and dives, switching from character to character as director Alejandro G. Inarritu introduces us to the key players with the quiet brilliance of a master conductor.

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After they escape they ditch their boat thinking they’ll stand a better chance at survival on foot. Then Glass gets savagely mauled by a bear in yet another overwhelmingly visceral sequence. Somehow, despite the bear being CGI, you feel the weight and primal threat of its presence as it attacks. It’ll have you squirming in your seat with your heart racing.

A little while after that Glass’s men leave him for dead (as he’s practically a corpse) and what follows is a fairly simple survival tale. One of Glass’s fellow trappers, Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald, is the main antagonist of the movie, and although he tries to get them to abandon Glass at every opportunity, he’s also just trying his best to survive.

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Everyone in this movie, it seems, is just trying to survive. And little wonder, given the landscape. The cast seems to have spent so much time in either snow or freezing water or both, you wonder how they didn’t call mutiny on their director. That said, despite the harsh environment, it’s beautiful to look at, and DP Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezski just goes from strength to strength as possibly the best in the business right now.

Funnily enough, with most survival movies you’ll sit there happily munching away on your popcorn. With this one I felt guilty just looking at my snacks, let alone opening them. And there’s the trick. We suffer (to a degree) as Glass suffers. The cold environment seems to seep off the screen. Clever filmmakers.

So what I’m saying is, don’t expect to go into this thinking it’s a popcorn movie of any sort. It’s tough and demands your attention. There’s minimal dialogue and a lot of DiCaprio gurning and suffering. But it’s an experience. One that’ll leave you feeling drained and moved afterwards.

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Seeking inspiration in the wrong places

Poetry

The blank page; the bane of a fledgling writer.
You stare in vain, willing your brain to dredge up an idea that lights up.
But nothing good comes.
So you sit there hollow and numb.
This part of the process?
The complete absence of fun.
When will that inspired concept strike?
As lurid day gives way to turgid night you stare out the window as birds take flight.
But still… nothing comes.
A strange rage begins to engage as you take in that hideous blank page.
What needs to change?
Your environment, yeah!
You need to get out and about.
The pub calls, so you head to the Hare & Trout.

Walking in, expecting a den of deviance laced in sin you’re greeted by tired old regulars slumped over their gin.
Somehow, you feel, this is not ideal.
No feast of inspiration but barely a meal.
So you down a few shots, turn heel and head back wobbly to the street.
Debauchery is needed.
You’re lost in thought as you walk straight into a Bobby on the beat.
In the collison you make a decision that bad things come to those that take definitive action.
So you steal his helmet in an instinctive reaction.
And perch it on your head in distinctive fashion.
The Bobby goes mad and loses his rag, much to your satisfaction.
He goes to give chase but he’s loathe to compete in your foolish race.
So he blows his whistle.

You stop, take aim, and launch the helmet like a guided missile.
It hits him full force, like a hammer and chisel.
You watch him hit the deck.
Imagining yourself the proud victor standing tall as you pin his neck.
He’s old this copper, you could take his gun and really finish this vet.
Dark thoughts swirl now and you’re drunk with power.
If this is the end then you should kick back and smoke some skunk in your final hour.
Then you snap to your senses.
In the street the Bobby gets to his feet, looking like he wants to swing you from the fences.
Like a rabbit in the headlights you’re rooted to the spot.
The image of your boot on his neck makes your survival instincts all but stop.
Then… something comes.

Inspiration blows you away like an awesome and beautiful tidal wave.
Your writer’s block caves and you’re overwhelmed, feeling brave.
The copper now advances as you flip him the bird.
You hurl abuse at him loud to make sure he’s flippin’ heard.
What a rebel.
Tonight was about inspiration and now you’re a red rag to a bull.
It’s like you’ve mainlined Red Bull.
Shots of tequila and nitrous oxide gives you cunning vision like fox eyes.
Chemicals flood your blood stream.
Feeling overloaded, like a mug you scream.
The copper looks nonplussed… as he pulls out his handcuffs.
And despite your bluster and bravado you muster the courage to follow him meekly when he says ‘Let’s go.’
And the next you know.. the cells doors slam.
But you don’t care.
The fire burns inside you, inspiration man. You’re a one-man clan.

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The Mountain

Poetry

No sugars, no carbs, I look lean and lewdly fit.
I preen like a mountain goat in my prime packing my altitude kit.
Ready to face the climb feeling jacked and ripped.
I’ve mastered the drills, conquered Wales and the last of its hills.
At the least, I’m an Alpine beast.
So why do I feel downcast and ill?
Perhaps I should kick back and chill and forget the mountain.
All my gear sucks anyway, knock-off clobber from North Face.
I’m soft, why bother?
In this summit race the best I’ll manage is fourth place.
No medal for me once I’m done, what a chronic waste.

But I love a challenge and the climb ahead looms, loaded with portentous doom.
So from base camp I take a moment, inspecting my baggage.
It’s likely this climb will be testing, resulting in significant damage.
And there’s a passage I must take but it’s unrelenting and savage.
Looking around, my fellow climbers look weak at the knees.
To be fair, they were cocky.
I bet they thought this peak was a breeze.
Now they just huddle together like rats at sea.
They muddle along like tourists, but without the glee.
Scrabbling for purchase on the mountain’s scree.

But me? I dominate.
This little hill, to me, is a stairmaster.
Bulletproof from disaster, I’m a sherpa, a warlock, a zen master.
I’m a shamen that shames men.
Those that try to climb this steep peak have nothing to gain from my spirit friends.
Yet I call on the Gods to protect them all.
If one goes under, the whole team falls.
And I can’t let these muppets drag me down.
Ranulph Fiennes ain’t got nuthin’ on me with his swagger, he’s a wannabe clown.
The way I see it, I plan to become an intrepid legend.
Entering the records books never happens to those that finish a tepid second.
So I scan the group in case others have form.
Paranoid, I feel threatened.
Staring into the void, the last thing I need is to be taught a real lesson.
Discreetly, I kneel by the camp’s gear and try to steal and conceal a weapon.

Then… treading lightly at night I prowl through the camp.
White mist gives way to red in my head.
The cold rage has now descended.
My plan made in haste was not what I intended.
But needs must to meet my brutal target.
So I rise from my seat, tool up and get started.
Hiding supplies I garrote the sherpas as they sleep.
I’m no ordinary deserter and this heavy decision didn’t come cheap.
But I’m committed to see it through.
For some of the group this end should be fitting, departing into the Arctic blue.
Dying from the cold or lack of supplies.
It’s how they would have wanted to go I think, as tears freeze my eyes.
Then I sink to my knees as I consider my schemes and lies.

What victory… will this be?
Somewhere on this climb I missed a beat.
And even though I’ll summit alone I’ll still face bitter defeat as the stark realisation plummets home.
I did this. I am damned.
Ghastly spectres haunt me.
Ghoulish frozen bodies floating in the ether like Homer’s odyssey.
And it’s odd to see, as I try to grip reality.
I move down the mountain feeling the slip of my sanity.
This blip of my senses, nothing but vapid vanity.
My rapid descent gives way to pure clarity.
The mountain had its way with me.
And here, at the bottom, all I can do is pray and bleed.

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RIP Alan Rickman: we’ve lost a great

My musings

First David Bowie goes then, mere days later, we lose Alan Rickman. Both 69 and both lost their battles with cancer. This just isn’t acceptable. It’s so, so sad.

But I am sure the man that so artfully played Severus Snape in Harry Potter wouldn’t want us to be morose and down in the dumps, oh no. For little do people know, but Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman was a bit of a joker and had a great sense of humour. That’s the rub kids, he was acting. Acting. And he was bloody good at it too.

So rather than mourn his death let’s celebrate his life and, more specifically, his excellent body of cinematic work. Known for playing bad and despicable types, Rickman’s first credit on IMDb is for the nefarious Tybalt in a TV movie of Romeo & Juliet in 1978. This must have set the scene for what came next, surely? For a decade later, having worked steadily in TV and theatre, he made his big screen debut as the delectable – and thoroughly evil – Hans Gruber in Die Hard in 1988. A classic bad guy, and thoroughly worthy opponent for Bruce Willis’ cop in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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For me, the next time I saw Rickman chew up the scenery and scare – and hugely entertain – everyone around him, was as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1991. Again, surrounded by Americans who weren’t quite sure what to do with him, they muddled by as best they could as he threatened to ‘cut their hearts out with a spoon.’ His legend status was beginning to cement nicely.

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He then decided to tone it down a bit, taking the role of the Metatron (the voice of God) in a quirky indie flick called Dogma, starring a young Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. His entrance, causing Linda Fiorentino to raise an eyebrow (no easy thing, she’s fiesty), proved he was very much in on the joke.

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Demonstrating his comedy chops were just as fearsome as his bad guy routine, he continued the trend that year playing a jaded and exasperated actor slowly unravelling (and massively enjoying himself in the process) in cult hit Galaxy Quest, a send-up of Star Trek, opposite Sigourney Weaver and Tim Allen.

Then, in 2001, we got to see his take on the character for which he’s most well known, Severus Snape in Harry Potter. At the time just a fledgling film and not the juggernaut franchise we now know and love. And whilst the whole cast went towards making it a success – and spawning the aforementioned franchise – Rickman’s performance as Snape (probably the most accurate portrayal of a Harry Potter character by any of the cast) was no doubt a big part of that success.

So with the franchise going from strength to strength for the rest of that decade, Alan was kept busy, but to his credit he never let the character of Snape go stale. He was always finding new ways to give him more depth and nuance. Even make him sympathetic (he was helped by Snape’s arc in the source material, but J.K. Rowling was still writing the books and he still had to put it across what he did know convincingly on screen).

On a break from Potter in the early days he also managed to get in a romantic comedy, of sorts, in Richard Curtis’ obligatory one-to-watch-at-Christmas movie, Love Actually. Despite the gargatuan cast, he stood out. His relationship with Emma Thompson’s character is one of the most heartbreaking and affecting story strands in the whole thing.

LOVE ACTUALLY, Heike Makatsch, Alan Rickman, 2003, (c) Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

In 2010, in what I consider to be an inspired bit of casting, he then played the Blue Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. His dour delivery of lines striking just the right note to stop the film from becoming too overloaded with Johnny Depp’s mad overacting.

A few years later, in 2014, he even turned his hand to directing, in a moderately well received period piece A Little Chaos, starring Kate Winslet.

And, even though he’s now gone, we may see him again, or at least his voice, as he reprised his role as the caterpillar in the not-yet-released Alice Through The Looking Glass.

So on a final note, to paraphrase/steal a line from Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black… Alan Rickman isn’t dead, he’s just gone home.

But if I’m wrong, RIP Mr Rickman, wherever you are, you’ll be missed beyond measure.

 

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RIP David Bowie: You remind me of the babe

Music, On my mind

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ll know… David Bowie died today finally losing his battle with cancer aged 69, and tributes flooded the internet because, despite what most of us like to think, Bowie was a freak. An oddity.

And we’re all odd freaks too (most of us), so we loved that he allowed us to embrace that. Simply put, he showed us the way – through his music, acting and constant reinvention. He took us to the heavens and the stars helping us expand our thinking, and he naval-gazed in his quieter moments, causing us to reflect inward and question ourselves.

On a personal level I discovered Bowie through old cassette tapes in my parent’s music collection. I had a listen and liked them, but didn’t quite ‘get it’, so put them aside and went back to my house records (I used to DJ a bit back then).

Then, around ten years later in my mid-20s, I found Bowie again.

Now I own an acoustic guitar and his songs had ways of finding me and making me sing alone in my room, expressing myself in a most liberating manner. From Space Oddity to A Man Who Sold The World to Starman, I sang my little heart out. What music was this? It was glorious and timeless (but in a good way, not a stuffy, Antiques Roadshow kind of way).

Then I became aware of his work in film, watching him steal scenes in The Prestige opposite Hugh Jackman. And so I revisited an ’80s, coming-of-age classic, The Labyrinth, where he was something of a force of nature, strutting his stuff in leather trousers opposite a young Jennifer Connelly.

I could go on… and on. But, well, you get it. If Bowie meant something to you then he meant something to you. And he kind of meant something to a great many of us, in profoundly different ways.

So, as tribute, below are a selection of clips that meant something to me.

Rest in peace David Bowie, you’re now among the stars.

 

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Trailer Park: The Nice Guys, Jane Got A Gun

Trailer park

For the latest in my ‘trailer park’ series I wish to draw your attention to a couple of films that look like they’re going to kick ass and entertain in equal measure. Shane Black, last seen as writer-director of Iron Man 3 brings us a cop caper with an unlikely – but brilliant looking, at least in the trailer – pair of misfits. And Natalie Portman makes a welcome return after a few years of misfiring duds (bar the Thor films) in a rather sumptous looking Western.

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Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe might sound an unlikely duo on paper, but from the trailer their chemistry looks evident and this looks a genuinely funny prospect.

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Natalie Portman is due a return to form I’d say, and here she might have it, in a Western which sees her team up with Joel Edgerton to thwart an evil Ewan McGregor.

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Top 5 actresses that look like cats

Best Of lists

We’ve all thought it. Well, er, some of us. Look at her eyes, so feline, so alluring, she can’t be human surely? Definitely some sort of alien. Well, whatever these ladies are, I like them. Those exotic creatures with the feline features.

So, for no reason at all really, other than I felt like sharing, here are my top five cat-like actresses in film and TV at the moment:

Olivia Wilde
The Change-Up, Alpha Dog, In Time, Her, Cowboys & Aliens, Tron: Legacy, House

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Amanda Seyfried
Alpha Dog, Chloe, Jennifer’s Body, Dear John, In Time, Lovelace

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Natalie Dormer
Game Of Thrones, Rush, Hunger Games, The Tudors

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Olivia Munn
Magic Mike, The Newsroom, Iron Man 2, X-Men: Apocalypse (out 2016)

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Mila Kunis
Friends With Benefits, Family Guy, Black Swan, Jupiter Ascending

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Joy: Lawrence adds strings to her bow

Film

Let’s say, in some other reality, Jennifer Lawrence hadn’t met David O. Russell and her career had (thus far) just been built upon an impressively gritty debut (Winter’s Bone) and a teen action franchise (Hunger Games), would we hold her in such high regard?

I rather doubt it. And this really isn’t a dig, but it’s fair to say her collaboration with writer-director David O. Russell over three films now (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and now Joy) have hugely elevated her career – in terms of dramatic credentials – and evolved her talent as one of Hollywood’s top actresses.

One thing it’s worth noting is that she’s always been able to hold the screen well and could carry a film right from the start of her career but, each time she works with O. Russell, he pushes her further. She evolves and matures.

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Now it’s arguable that Silver Linings Playbook may be a more satisfying film for audiences, but in Joy she perhaps gives a more complete and complex performance. Oscar material some say it may be, but first and foremost we as the audience must connect with her character and journey. Which we do, of course.

When we meet Joy she’s a young girl with hopes and dreams who likes to make things. Flash forward and she’s a young mother looking after a demented father (Robert de Niro) who’s been booted out of his latest relationship and a cabaret singer ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) who both end up living in her basement. Oh, and a mother (Virginia Madsen) who spends her time in bed endlessly watching soaps and no one appears to be doing much to hold the family together, except Joy. And so she’s lost her lust and vitality for life, scraping a living trying to make ends meet.

Then she has a dream and invents a mop. And we go from there.

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On paper you might say this has quirky Wes Anderson written all over it. But David O. Russell tends to do things his own way and it’s almost always substance over style and character drives everything. And Joy is a character, that’s evident. She evolves in clear and distinct ways. From the moment she invents her Miracle Mop she’s focused and more driven. There’s an edge to her and she becomes more hardened and glassy-eyed each time she faces a new challenge, whether it’s from those closest to her putting her down in well-meaning but ultimately rather tactless ways, or those she meets in business who try and get one over on her and more often than not, emphatically fail.

And Lawrence gives her a wonderful texture and believability.

She’s always been good at delivering lines with gravitas for one so young, but she does make it look rather effortless at times, completely drawing us into her performance. The rest of the cast ain’t half bad too. If only De Niro stuck to these kinds of films from now we’d all be happier. For every Joy he does a Dirty Grandpa or some other type of drivel not worth his talent. But hey, he’s Robert de Niro, he can do what he likes.

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Another David O. Russell alumni present is Bradley Cooper; more front and centre in Silver Linings Playbook here he has a smaller part, but makes an impact sharing a few rather touching scenes with Lawrence as the man who gives Joy her first big break on the QVC channel.

What’s notable about this film (in that it’s absent) is the complete lack of a romantic subplot or character with whom she ‘has to have’ steamy moments to keep the audience interested. As the film starts with the fact she’s divorced we get a flashback to their time together, but purely for character development as the story doesn’t linger there long. And rightly so, that’s not what’s being told and it would be distracting. Kudos to O. Russell for staying the course.

So what we have, at the end of it all, is quite an inspiring tale to keep pushing tenaciously for your dreams and to believe in yourself – held together masterfully by Jennifer Lawrence, who probably gets better every time I see her in a film (always a good sign).

Incidentally, not a bad way to see in gloomy January I’d say.

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Who are the most ‘in form’ British actresses right now?

Best Of lists

Now I was going to use the word ‘hot’ to describe this list, as in ‘they’re so hot right now’, but it seems a bit American for a list of British actresses. So for anyone into sport I’ve gone with ‘in form’, so you’ll get it – and I mean acting talent not physical form. Of course they’re all beautiful as well (goes without saying), but this is about their ability to convince us of their character and performance on screen.

Here are my favourites with some of their work listed; ones who have been lighting up the screen in impressive ways over the last few years. It’s a mixed list, which is a good thing.

Up-and-comers like Emilia Clarke, Lily Collins and Imogen Poots are still finding their feet and working on the odd clunker, whereas others like Alice Eve, Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones really need to be in decent stuff a bit more often, given their talent.

I would say Emily Blunt, Kate Winslet and Carey Mulligan are leading the way as the most ‘in form’ at the moment. Plus Winslet really should get some sort of lifetime achievement award at some point. She’s got ten years on the rest of the women on this list and has consistently worked on good projects throughout her career – she’s so impressive.

Emily Blunt
Sicario, Edge of Tomorrow, Looper, The Adjustment Bureau
Hayley Atwell
Agent Carter, Ant-Man, Cinderella, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Lily Collins
Mirror Mirror, Love, Rosie
Carey Mulligan
Suffragette, Far From The Madding Crowd, Shame, Drive, Inside Llewyn Davis

Rebecca Hall
Iron Man 3, The Gift, Transcendence, The Town, Closed Circuit
Alice Eve
Starter For 10, Crossing Over, Star Trek Into Darkness
Emma Watson
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, The Bling Ring, Noah
Emilia Clarke
Game of Thrones, Terminator Genisys
Rosamund Pike
Gone Girl, Jack Reacher, The World’s End
Juno Temple
Far From The Madding Crowd, Killer Joe, Cracks, Black Mass
Romola Garai
Suffragette, The Hour, The Crimson Petal and the White
Felicity Jones
The Theory of Everything, Like Crazy, Chalet Girl
Sienna Miller
High-Rise, Mississippi Grind, American Sniper, Foxcatcher

Imogen Poots
A Long Way Down, Filth, The Look Of Love, Cracks
Jessica Brown Findlay
Victor Frankenstein, The Riot Club
Naomi Watts
While We’re Young, Birdman, Insurgent
Kate Winslet
Steve Jobs, The Dressmaker, Labor Day, Carnage, Insurgent/Divergent

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